All Hail ‘Adaptation’ rather than ‘Differentiation’!

Last year I wrote a (very) lengthy post aimed at “Stripping the Ideology from Differentiation”.

I suggested that the regime of insisting on differentiation in lessons had effectively turned it into an end in itself – fuelled by a mistaken belief that in an ideal world we would deliver fully personalised lessons to each child in our classes.

I’m going to boil down and supplement my thoughts even more in this (much) shorter post, and add in a key proposal:

We should replace the label ‘Differentiation’ with the label ‘Adaptation’


– ‘Differentiation’ feeds the search for differences.

Whereasadaptationfocuses on accommodating needs.

– ‘Differentiation’ results in institutionalised diktats to arbitrarily discriminate between learners based on the presumed importance of token differences.

Whereasadaptationis responsive to different needs as and when they become salient

– ‘Differentiation’ results in teachers contriving to overly complicate and fragment their teaching, whilst bestowing self-fulfilling prophesies on their children.

Whereasadaptation allows them to retain the cohesive drive at the heart of their lessons; better benefiting all children through maintaining the social integrity of the group, and allowing an easy mechanism for anyone to gain support or extension as required.

Of course, adaptation includes all the things which differentiation, at its best, is intended to do.

But it also includes quite a lot less..….

Summary of key flaws in the differentiation ideology:

“A difference is only a difference if it makes a difference”

When young children are planning ‘fair test’ experiments in science, they will often describe controlling for something which doesn’t require it, simply because they are ardently looking for differences – “e.g. keep the tie colour of the person doing the experiment the same”

When we personalise education beyond what is in the moment or only just beyond it, we are in truth little more than toddlers playing God with sandcastles on the beach

Feel that you really ought to weave a clever web of individualised learning paths? We don’t know enough about:

  • The past of our pupils
  • The future of our pupils
  • The complex internal state of our pupils
  • The complex dynamics of how learning really works

When we split up a teacher’s focus beyond what is really necessary, we dilute their impact

Kids love to hunt in packs and follow a strong scent. Keep the pack together and keep the teaching direct, unambiguous and forthright.

How ‘ADAPTATION’ should work:

We DO need to think strategically and plan for the needs of our children. However, we have more ability to anticipate in general how people might struggle than we have to predict specifically how an individual pupil will struggle.

If you HAVE identified a specific performance weakness, or a performance ‘excess’ in a specific child, which is directly relevant to the next task at hand, then ask yourself:

  • “Where do the best interests of this child seem to lie?” And plan appropriately.



  • The most fruitful form of strategic adaptation (i.e. ‘planned in advance’) facilitates tactical adaptation (‘decided in the moment’) as and when it becomes necessary
    • Plan for ready-to-use support and extension mechanisms
  • It also caters for many potential differences between learners by providing for ALL children a multi-pronged approach to presenting and accessing material to be learned.
    • Ensure multiple ways of receiving learning – multi-modal access for ALL pupils
    • Encourage multiple ways of exploring the learning – multiple activities and routes through the subject matter
    • Allow multiple ways of demonstrating the learning – encourage the expression of a learner’s unique narrative.
  • Crucially, strategic adaptation should also make it as easy as possible for any child to step backwards or forwards regarding the difficulty of their work
    • Unless you think it is desirable that they wrestle with something more to develop their character and work habits,
    • Or unless you think it is desirable for them to consolidate an area and strive for higher standards of perfection before moving on.

DON’T assume that endless personalisation would be the ideal if only we could resource it – everything we choose differently for an individual child denies them what others are having. How often would you be omniscient enough to know what would genuinely favour them best in the long run?

DON’T assume that you should always carve 3 different groups out of the children you have, irrespective of the subject matter or the similarities between the children. It’s a contrivance for inspectors who by now should be starting to know better.


  • Select what strikes you as the most compelling way into a subject area. You want all children engaged in a challenging pursuit which facilitates desirable learning – and in which you can enthusiastically and wisely lead the way.
  • Ask yourself:
    • Could all children access this…?
    • Will all children be challenged by this…?”
      • then go from there

The Ladder of Adaptation

6 thoughts on “All Hail ‘Adaptation’ rather than ‘Differentiation’!

  1. Great post – we do a lot of work at the CTTL translating research from Mind, Brain and Education into classroom practice, and what you say is well justified in the research out there. Apologies for the long reply, but you might enjoy this little known Howard Gardner quote on what multiple intelligences actually means in practice: ““It may seem that I am simply calling for the “smorgasbord” approach to education: throw enough of the proverbial matter at students and some of it will hit the mind/brain and stick. Nor do I think that this approach is without merit. However, the theory of multiple intelligences provides an opportunity, so to speak, to transcend mere variation and selection. It is possible to examine a topic in detail, to determine which intelligences, which analogies, and which examples, are most likely both to capture important aspects of the topic and to reach a significant number of students. We must acknowledge here the cottage industry aspect of pedagogy, a craft that cannot now and may never be susceptible to an algorithmic approach. It may also constitute the enjoyable part of teaching: the opportunity continually to revisit one’s topic and to consider fresh ways in which to convey its crucial components.”


    • Thank you very much Ian (I’m guessing that’s Ian Kelleher?). I wasn’t particularly familiar with CTTL until now, but I’ve been browsing your materials and blogs.
      I’m very interested in what you say above for three reasons. Firstly, I have plenty of time for Howard Gardner. I think I experienced a similar path to many people of initially finding his MI work exciting, then becoming dubious once it was pointed out that you couldn’t necessarily distinguish such distinct intelligences neurally (there was perhaps an arbitrary element to it), but I have come through that some way to appreciate the utility in practice of such metaphors and the perceptive nature of his theory building.
      What I think really takes me forward here however, is how your quote fits in with my assertion that teachers should start by coming up with what, for them, seems the most powerful way(s) of presenting a PARTICULAR topic to ANY other human being. Particular modalities better suit different areas of learning – we can’t just say ‘everyone learns best through using the complete spread of modalities – therefore make sure everything you teach is presented through as many dimensions as possible.’ It is neither practical, nor indeed that intelligent. Hopefully nobody here thinks you, I or Gardner are talking about individual VAK preferences…
      My final pick-up from your quote refers to the ‘cottage industry’ aspect of pedagogy. I have written before about the need to see teaching as being ultimately an evidence INFORMED art in the hands of the unique professional on the ground, as evidence BASED will never quite be able to really dictate what MUST be done.

      Thanks again,


  2. Pingback: Closing the gap: differentiation by time | mathagogy

  3. Great post. I’ve had in mind something along the lines of ‘The myth of differentiation’ ever since I did my teacher training some quarter of a century ago. I couldn’t stomach the type of differentiated nonsense I was witnessing and being asked to carry out, whereby I had to make assumptions about the INabilities of pupils. This makes a lot more sense. It’s also where technology can come into its own – but that’s another story.


  4. Pingback: In-Class Motivation – Part 3: From EXTRINSIC to INTRINSIC | Stepping Back a Little

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